While Nepal is in the throes of a deadly second wave of the pandemic, the country reckons with another disaster, one triggered by monsoon rains. Like every other year, landslides and floods have battered several hilly districts in the country, resulting in loss of lives, livelihoods, lands, properties, and infrastructure.
The monsoon mayhem kicked off early this year. Last week, flash floods set off by heavy rainfall inundated the Melamchi Bazaar, in Sindhupalchok, claiming the lives of about a dozen people and displacing hundreds. Disasters of lesser scales have been reported out of several other hilly districts.
Sindhupalchok has naturally received most attention because the district has had to deal with several disasters in the past decade—the Jure landslide of 2014 followed by devastating earthquakes of 2015, then landslides in Jammu last year and now Melamchi. The latest episode in a series of disasters in Sindhupalchok has once again raised some pressing questions: Is the land and topography of the district suitable for human settlement? Is it not getting late for the state to relocate settlements in flood and landslide prone regions? And, more acutely, why are people in Sindhupalchok subjected to dealing with similar disasters every passing year?
These are the questions that appear more pronouncedly every year and whose satisfactory answers are not forthcoming from the state.
The disasters that unfold in Sindhupalchok every year point to a hard truth: that the state has failed in its job to protect its citizens from, what are often dubbed, “preventable” tragedies. The state and scale of monsoon disasters, not just in Sindhupalchok but across the country, is getting worse every single year.
That the mayhem has started in the first week of Asar itself—unusual given the past records—is alarming, indicating that we might yet have to face more terrible disasters in the days to come. Several districts in Gandaki, Bagmati, Lumbini and Sudurpaschim provinces suffered monsoon disasters this past week: Manang, Baglung, Parbat, Myagdi, Gorkha, Tanahun, Rupandehi, Bardiya—the list is getting longer. The Department of Hydrology and Meteorology has warned that the monsoon is not going to become weak anytime soon.
The early response from the government and state agencies have been in rescue and relief operations, and rightly so. Of course, when people have lost their habitat, livestock, and properties, the first step should be taken towards ensuring that they get shelter and food and that they are safe. To that effect, various government agencies and social organizations are involved in rescue and relief works while Nepal Police, Nepal Army, and Armed Police Force personnel have been deployed in the flood-affected areas.
Given that we are not yet out of the woods from Covid-19, our post-disaster response has to be extremely well-managed.
Given that we are not yet out of the woods from Covid-19, our post-disaster response has to be extremely well-managed. Hundreds of people are already displaced from their homes. Measures such as physical distancing could be done away with and that could lead to an increase in Covid infections. Relief and rescue operations, which also generate crowds, could make matters worse. Faced with this situation, the government and non-government agencies that are now carrying out relief operations will have to act responsibly with perfect interagency coordination, mindful that the survivors need to be saved from potential Covid infections as well. Then there is a likelihood of outbreak of various kinds of diseases in the disaster sites. This too should be taken into consideration.
Nepal’s disaster response has a vicious cycle about it. It has been limited to the annual ritual of government and non-government agencies reaching out to the survivors, providing them with temporary shelters and relief material, followed by the announcement of compensation of a few hundred thousand rupees or the promise of rebuilding their houses or relocating them to safer spaces. Then when the monsoon recedes and the survivors get back on their feet, those promises are quickly forgotten. Then we come to think of the disasters seriously only when they wreak havoc again.
This piecemeal approach, accompanied by indifference later on, is among the responsible factors for heavy loss of lives and properties every year. This trend must be broken. The early warning systems should be enhanced and local governments must be mobilized in disaster risk reduction initiatives. In the long run, the government must identify disaster-prone areas across the country and take initiatives to relocate people living there. No doubt, that’s a tall order. But any step, big or small, should be taken urgently towards that. We cannot afford to become a nation that loses scores of its citizens to monsoon disasters every other year.